On December 23, 1996, the body of French documentary filmmaker Sophie Toscan du Plantier was found not far from her holiday home, a remote cottage in scenic West Cork.
Toscan du Plantier, 39, was married to a renowned film producer, Daniel, a close friend of French president Jacques Chirac, and the case quickly attracted international attention.
Almost a quarter of a century later, no one has ever been charged in Ireland for her murder - although the only suspect, Ian Bailey, who has always denied all charges and maintained his innocence, has been convicted of the crime in absentia by a French court.
The case, with its many twists and turns, is rich material for true crime series, first inspiring the acclaimed podcast West Cork and now the subject of two documentaries released almost in tandem: Sky documentary series Murder at the Cottage and Netflix’s three-part programme Sophie: A Murder In West Cork.
As well as featuring interviews with Bailey (who has since called the project “biased, inimical, poisonous propaganda”), the Netflix project also includes contributions from Toscan du Plantier’s family (who withdrew their involvement in Murder at the Cottage).
As the Netflix series lands on our screens, this is how one of Ireland’s most notorious murder cases has played out to date.
The crime scene
French filmmaker Toscan du Plantier had visited Ireland as a teenager; in 1993, she bought a cottage near Toormore, just outside the town of Schull in West Cork, and would regularly make trips from her home in Paris, accompanied by her young son, Pierre-Louis Baudey-Vignaud. Though remote, the area was a welcoming, cosmopolitan one, attracting an international crowd (known as ‘blow-ins’) and boasting an almost non-existent crime rate.
She travelled to the cottage alone on December 20, 1996, planning to return to Paris in time for Christmas. On the morning of December 23, her body was discovered on a path outside the house by her neighbour, Shirley Foster, with multiple head injuries; a blood-stained piece of slate and concrete block were discovered at the scene.
It was, as many of the locals interviewed in the documentary note, the first murder in living memory in the area: the last had been the killing of revolutionary leader Michael Collins in 1922. Thanks to the pre-Christmas traffic, it took almost five hours for a forensics expert, Eugene Gilligan, to arrive in Schull; when he got there, he tells the filmmakers, he had to rewire a public phone box to get in touch with the local Garda to receive directions. Her body was left outside for 28 hours, until the state pathologist arrived; it was difficult to retrieve forensic evidence from the outdoor crime scene, which had been buffeted by the December weather.
After the Garda put out an appeal asking anyone with information to come forward, Schull resident Marie Farrell made several phone calls (using the alias ‘Fiona’) claiming to have seen a man near Kealfadda Bridge, 2.6km from the cottage, on the night that Sophie was murdered.
British journalist Ian Bailey moved to Ireland in 1991 and had been living in Schull with his partner Jules Thomas since 1992, working as a stringer for various papers.
He was the first reporter on the scene after the murder, and some witnesses recalled seeing him with scratches on his forearms (Toscan du Plantier’s body was found near bramble bushes) and an injury on his forehead; he said that he’d been scratched while cutting down a Christmas tree, and that the cut on his forehead came about while killing a turkey. When investigators tested out his claims by cutting down trees, they didn’t sustain similar cuts.
Bailey continued to report on the case, with some of his stories suggesting a ‘French connection’ - including an unsubstantiated theory that the victim’s husband had hired a hitman - and alleging that Toscan du Plantier had multiple male visitors at the cottage.
In February 1997, teenager Malachi Reid contacted police, letting them know that he had received a lift home from Bailey, who reportedly told him that he “went up there [to Toscan du Plantier’s cottage] and bashed her brains out.” Local couple Richie and Rose Shelley, who spent New Year’s Eve with Bailey in 1998, would later say that he seemed to break down that night and told them, “I did it, I went too far.” The journalist, meanwhile, would go on to argue that these supposed confessions were simply intended as dark jokes, repeating what other people were saying about him.
Bailey was arrested for the murder days after Reid went to the police, but was eventually released without charge. He was arrested - and released - the following year, too, as the Director of Public Prosecutions found that there was not enough evidence to proceed to trial: much of the Garda’s evidence was circumstantial, and no forensic evidence has ever linked Bailey to the crime scene.
Much of the Garda’s case against Bailey hinged around a discussion between Bailey and Irish Examiner reporter Eddie Cassidy on December 23, 1996. Records showed that Cassidy phoned Bailey to ask him to report on the murder at 1.40pm that afternoon. He maintained that he did not tell Bailey that the victim was French, as he wasn’t aware of that detail at that stage; several witnesses, meanwhile, claimed that Bailey had spoken to them that morning about investigating the death of a French woman. Bailey in turn claimed that he had learned of the victim’s nationality from Cassidy.
Though he repeatedly insisted that he had never met Toscan du Plantier, a number of witnesses, including French filmmaker Guy Girard, would go on to claim that she had spoken to them about Bailey.
Fast-forward to 2003, and Bailey started a libel case against British and Irish eight newspapers over their coverage of the murder, eventually losing six counts and winning two.
The case marked the first time that much of the evidence from the Garda’s case against Bailey had been made public, with witnesses from Schull subpoenaed to appear. The court heard claims that Bailey had apparently confessed to locals - and also that he had assaulted his partner on three occasions; after one incident, in 2001, he received a suspended three month jail sentence.
Then in 2005, witness Farrell went on to withdraw her statement against Bailey, claiming that she had been pressured into making it by the Garda. A later report into the Garda’s handling of the case found that while the investigation may have been mismanaged, with evidence including the blood-stained gate taken from the crime scene lost, there was no evidence of corruption.
Trial in absentia
Frustrated at the lack of progress in the case, Toscan du Plantier’s family formed the Association for the Truth About the Murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier to continue to fight for a resolution. French law allows magistrates to investigate crimes committed abroad which involve French citizens, as long as they receive a formal complaint, and in 2010 a European Arrest Warrant was issued for Bailey by a French magistrate. The Irish High Court initially granted an extradition order, but Bailey successfully appealed against it, with Irish judges ruling that he could not be extradited as, at this stage, the French authorities did not intend to try him.
Seven years later, in March 2017, Bailey was arrested in Ireland under another European Arrest Warrant, which called for him to stand trial for voluntary homicide in France, but again managed to successfully appeal the extradition. Despite this, a French court went on to rule in 2019 that they had “sufficient grounds” to try Bailey in absentia - meaning that the accused did not have to be present during the legal proceedings.
While the Irish legal system would require proof beyond reasonable doubt, the burden of proof is different in France (one of A Murder In West Cork’s interviewees calls the approach “a bouquet of proof”) and the Cour d’Assises de Paris convicted Bailey of Toscan du Plantier’s murder on May 21, 2019, sentencing him to 25 years in prison.
Bailey, who described the trial in absentia as a “farce,” has never spent any time behind bars, however, because the following year Ireland’s High Court ruled that he could not be extradited to France. As before, his successful appeal hinged on the lack of reciprocity between Ireland and France: the judge said that if an Irish citizen had been murdered in France by a UK national living in France, Ireland would not seek extradition.
Bailey, who has always denied any involvement in the murder and has never been charged in Ireland, continues to live in Schull, where he has a stall at the local farmers’ market.
The case remains unsolved, and there have been no notable suspects in the case. Toscan du Plantier’s family - including her son, who still visits the cottage in West Cork - are still determined to get justice for the filmmaker.
Sophie: A Murder In West Cork is available to stream on Netflix